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Teddy Wayne: The Celebrity Machine

April 19, 2013

The author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine talks to Matthew McAlister about the publishing industry, narrative forms, and the nature of child stardom in the digital age.

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Image from Flickr via NRK P3

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Whiting Writers’ Award winner Teddy Wayne’s second novel after Kapitoil, is a condemnation of celebrity culture rendered through the voice of eleven-year-old Jonny Valentine, a Justin Bieber-esque pop-star with a fame-seeking mother and deadbeat father, struggling with puberty and stardom on the final leg of his career-defining tour. The world Jonny inhabits is so thoroughly rendered that his email address actually works. (He replied, “Are you my dad?”) I interviewed Wayne over email about his preference for first-person narratives, the similarities between the book and music industries, and child stars in the digital age.

—Matthew McAlister for Guernica

Guernica: Both Jonny Valentine and Kapitoil are presented in the first person, and as a type of journal. What is it about that combination of perspective and form that’s attractive to you?

Teddy Wayne: I’m generally drawn to first-person narratives as a reader, as well; I feel they offer up a deeper empathy with their single narrator than third-person perspectives do with their wider-ranging cast (and greater verbal latitude). This is a reductive analogy, but I suppose it’s also why I prefer to talk one-on-one than engage in group conversations—I’d rather get to know that one person intimately than have a passing familiarity with a number of people. Both these books are also quite voice-y, abetted by Karim Issar’s journal in Kapitoil and Jonny’s interior monologue on his musical tour, which I think is something of a prerequisite for first-person narratives: if the narrator doesn’t roam out of the ordinary fields of language, it may as well be in the more controlled third person.

Guernica: What’s your reaction, considering this novel is so wrapped up in, and so critical of, celebrity culture, to having real-world celebrities like James Franco identify with and promote your book?

I was able to give him a full range of professional, personal, and even sexual concerns. The word “boner” pops up seventeen times.

Teddy Wayne: Well, it’s not like Snooki’s hunkering down with it in the paparazzi’s spotlight, which would provoke a confused reaction from all quarters, especially me. Franco, and others who have mentioned it, are more bookish celebrities who are doing me a kindness in spreading the word about it. It would be pretty repugnant if I had some principled stance against someone doing that, when word-of-mouth remains the best, and purest, way to reach readers. I imagine the appeal is stronger with celebrities who became famous at younger ages, for obvious reasons, and if they connect with it on a different level from the rest of us who haven’t had that experience and find it realistic, then it’s gratifying.

Guernica: There’s an early scene when Jonny thinks about the ghostwriter for his autobiography, Alan Fontana, who “just used Wikipedia to write a bunch of made-up stuff about girls and sports and music pretending to be in my voice,” and Jonny concludes, “They’d never write the real truth, like, ‘Sometimes all I think about is getting boners for girls.'” You’re writing a character who does indeed think a lot about getting boners for girls. Did you find it difficult to stay within the bounds of that voice? Were there things you wished you could say, but that Jonny couldn’t?

Teddy Wayne: Jonny’s voice is restricted in some ways, because he’s eleven, but he’s not a typical eleven-year-old: he has access to the vocabulary and experience of a market-driven, veteran celebrity, and is therefore deeply cynical and knowledgeable about his role in the machine, while retaining some of the innocence of a kid. A more verbally confined child narrator, like Jack in Emma Donoghue’s fantastic Room, would have been more difficult to stay within. So because of that, there wasn’t much I held back on with Jonny: I was able to give him a full range of professional, personal, and even sexual concerns. The word “boner” pops up seventeen times.

There is still plenty of good fiction with the big publishers, but in five or ten years, it may well be only the huge names who remain so.

Guernica: How do you think the book and music industries compare?

Teddy Wayne: They have some similarities, and are converging, thanks to the digitized depletion of their profit margins. I imagine the book world will eventually turn into what music has become: a few high-quality artists will be produced by major labels, but the music that is less commercial will find a home only on independent labels (whereas a few decades ago, they would have found a home with the majors). The same thing is happening in publishing: there is still plenty of good fiction with the big publishers, but in five or ten years, it may well be only the huge names who remain so, and everyone else will have to make do with far lower advances at independent presses. The problem is that musicians can make up some of that income by playing shows; only the most famous authors can sell tickets to a reading.

That said, the people who work in publishing are very invested in their art form, and are willingly forsaking higher salaries in other industries because they believe in books. Certainly, many people in music feel the same way about their art, but some have gone into it for more mercenary reasons. I doubt there’s a single person in New York publishing who entered his or her field primarily for the money.

Guernica: Something that sticks out in Jonny Valentine is this brutal honesty about the male adolescent experience, and the speed at which Jonny has to physically and emotionally mature. There’s always been something combustible in the youth/celebrity mix, but this is the first generation of child stars going through it entirely in the digital age. Do you think that makes a difference? What do you imagine Jonny being like in twenty years?

Teddy Wayne: It certainly makes some difference. When child stars of yesteryear went out, they didn’t have to worry about every single person they encountered snapping a digital photo or taking video of them that could then explode on the Internet—nor did they have to contend with the lower ethical standards of modern media. And there simply wasn’t as much of it; our appetites have increased. I wrote an article about this and the ways the digital age, among other changes, has affected childhood in general. As for the 31-year-old Jonny, the adulthood of child stars is rarely a bright one, especially for musicians; Justin Timberlake is one of the few who has managed to remain a performing celebrity, and he didn’t become famous until he was in his mid-teen years. The only realistic and healthy outcome, aside from starting life over as a civilian, is to move behind the scenes.

Guernica: If you had a kid, a minor, who was in the position to become a Justin Bieber-type superstar, would you sign the papers that started the ball rolling?

Teddy Wayne: Nope. It’s exploitative and emotionally damaging, and if they really want to pursue whatever profession it is, they can do so as an adult—when they are more apt to be recognized for their talent, not their mass-market salability.

Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Free Press) and Kapitoil (Harper Perennial), for which he was the winner of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award and a PEN/Bingham Prize, New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist. The recipient of an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, his work regularly appears in The New Yorker, the New York Times, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. He has taught at Washington University in St. Louis and Marymount Manhattan College, and he lives in New York.

Matthew McAlister is from Lexington, Kentucky. He lives in Brooklyn.

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